Following the July 17 death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner while he was resisting arrest for allegedly selling single cigarettes, an already-existing campaign to dissuade police from enforcing the law on some minor crimes and violations picked up steam. Enforcement of such laws, what is known as the broken windows theory approach to policing, is one target of the protest led by the Rev. Al Sharpton that is set to take place on Staten Island Saturday.
According to activists such as Sharpton, as well as some elected officials including three members of Congress who represent parts of Queens, broken windows policing has an unfair impact on minority communities, such as the one where Garner, who was black, died.
“Mr. Garner’s death has taken place in the context of a broken windows policing strategy that appears to target communities of color for the enforcement of minor violations and low-level criminal offenses,” says an Aug. 12 letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by six members of the House of Representatives from New York City, including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens), Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau) and Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens).
The letter seeks a formal federal probe into Garner’s death and “the alleged constitutional and civil rights violations connected with the broken windows law enforcement strategy.”
The lawmakers say there is “reason to believe” police do not take the same approach in majority-white neighborhoods.
Broken windows policing takes its name from a 1982 article written by the social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. In a nutshell, it says that relatively minor problems, such as broken windows caused by vandalism, must be addressed because if allowed to fester, they will lead to a sense of lawlessness and more serious criminality in a given community. Proponents also say that enforcing the law on lesser infractions can lead to the discovery or prevention of crime, as when, for example, a someone stealing a can of soda is arrested and patted down — and found to be carrying a gun. The New York Post reported just such an incident at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan on Aug. 2.
Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who pioneered the use of broken windows policing here during his first stint as the city’s top cop in the 1990s, say they are sticking with it.
With the debate over the strategy at center stage, the Queens Chronicle asked a number of civic leaders across the borough what they think of the approach — and the answers were as varied as the neighborhoods here.
Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said police cannot look the other way when it comes to any illegality, but that they must have more respect for people in the community. The NAACP is one of the organizers of Saturday’s protest, which Gadsden said is not about opposition to the Police Department but about holding officers accountable for their actions.
“You must have a respectful and trusting relationship between the police and the community,” said Gadsden, a criminologist who also spent seven years as a police officer in his native South Carolina. “When trust is broken, you see a high-crime neighborhood.”
Earl Roberts, president of the 113th Precinct Community Council in Jamaica and adjacent communities, agrees. Unlike some of the activists, Roberts does not believe the community is “over-policed.” In fact, he said, it needs more officers.
But according to Roberts, the NYPD needs to return to community policing, in which the cop on the beat knows the neighborhood and the people in it, and can dissuade them from committing low-level offenses. That’s how it was in the old days in public housing, Roberts said, and it’s a vastly different approach than that of today, when “Impact Teams” of eight or nine officers approach groups of young men looking like an army and refusing to answer questions about why their targets are being accosted.
“We need police who know verbal judo, so they know how to speak to community residents,” Roberts said.
Across the borough in Jackson Heights, Rosemarie Poveromo, president of the United Community Civic Association, agreed that more community policing is necessary to bring relations between cops and residents back to where they should be. But Poveromo also said police should not have their hands tied behind their backs, and decried the recent drastic cutbacks in the use of stop and frisk, which she said had led to the ongoing surge in shootings. And, she said, laws must be enforced.
That point also was made by Roe Daraio, president of the nearby Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together civic group, who said “the little things,” such as graffiti and vandalism, are the things that concern residents in many areas.
“Those little things really upset communities, and if you enforce the law on those little things, you prevent the bigger things,” Daraio said.
Both activists also made the point that enforcement should be even in all neighborhoods and among all ethnicities.
Bjorn Matz, vice president of the Kew Gardens Civic Association, said he strongly backs broken windows policing, and remembers how much worse crime was before Bratton applied it under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Thirty years ago, Matz and other Kew Gardens activists started a neighborhood patrol to combat crime, one he said was so successful it died out because it no longer seemed needed.
As for those who cry “over-policing,” Matz doesn’t buy it, saying, “I believe they’re looking at it from an angle where they want to be free to do the things they want to do.”
In neighboring Forest Hills, civic President Barbara Stuchinski, who took the Citizens Police Academy course years ago, said cops should use discretion in whom they target, going after graffiti vandals, for example, but not someone selling loose cigarettes.